News / 28.05.2013

Reporting Religion

By LInus Atarah

For the whole of last year the main Finnish television news broadcast 19 stories related to the church. The two current affairs programmes “Ajankohtainen Kakkonen” and “A-Talk carried between them even less, 9 stories altogether. There has not been a corresponding tally of how the print media have performed in this respect but it is almost certain they wouldn’t fare any better.

Why is so much little attention paid to religion and religious-related issues in the media compared to other aspects of societal life?

The mass media’s coverage of the church, religion and religious conviction was the subject of a one day seminar jointly organised by the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Mission and the Union of Journalists in Finland last week.

One explanation for the sparse coverage of religious issues in the media given by Pasi Peiponen, a journalist at the Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE) is that journalists do not want to get into old controversies involving believers.

He nevertheless did point out that reporting on religious issues as difficult as reporting on poverty in Finland.

“Religion is all pervasive in social life and, from the perspective of an ordinary journalist, the really difficult question is, how to find something new to tell which goes beyond the predominant mainstream?” said Peiponen.

Another explanatory factor for the low visibility of religious issues in the media is due to the fact journalists lack the requisite expert knowledge in religious affairs, which in turn stems from the general weakening of the position of religion in society.

For instance, according to Elina Vuola, professor of theology at the University of Helsinki, there is a growing trend among people who acquire higher education at the university having little or no background education in religion.

Given this situation, Vuola says, “we might have a situation at some point where journalists, or researchers, or other specialists in public life are very ignorant about religion as phenomenon”.

Vuola accepts that western societies are increasingly becoming secularised and the position of religion in society has weakened, also in Finland. But she rejects the characterisation of secularisation in polarised terms.

It is wrong to, according to her, to speak of “the secularised global North” and the “religious global South” as if there is no secularisation process in the South or that there is no religious visibility in the North.

Religion is part of culture and also in many respects affects people’s values, she said. It is also sometimes for good or bad, part of societal and political conflicts. In that regards, it is important for journalists to have a good understanding of religion, perhaps, even more so than any aspect of culture, said Vuola.

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